The latest version of NASCAR’s Chase has resembled an _American Idol_-style elimination, without the horrible singing, Ryan Seacrest, and 80% of the viewership. We started with the final 12 title hopefuls at New Hampshire, but each week, no matter what happens there’s always one person who ends up eliminated before moving on.
On Sunday, it was Jeff Gordon’s turn as the number of realistic championship contenders got trimmed to eight. The four-time titlist, labeled a prohibitive favorite after his late summer charge never really established much consistency the past four weeks, stumbling through this playoff before a blown engine officially put him out of his misery Sunday on Lap 264.
“I knew it was just a matter of time,” he said of an oil problem that lasted for 30 laps before tearing the motor apart. “To last that long was pretty amazing. We started getting smoke, we thought it was tire smoke, but it wasn’t – it was under the hood.”
Of course, the ramifications run much, much deeper than a simple mechanical failure. Now 47 points out, with six races left and nine drivers to leap over Gordon’s title dreams are toast. That’s a tough pill to swallow, more than most years considering he’s experiencing a career renaissance at 40. The one-time Wonder Boy has brought the magic back with three victories, his highest total since 2007 and is on track to lead over 1,000 laps this season. At times this summer, other than Brad Keselowski no one was hotter than Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson. Clearly, the driver/crew chief carousel at Hendrick Motorsports worked best for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.
But now, it’s opportunity lost which makes one wonder when, exactly Gordon will have another chance this good. After switching shops with Johnson this year, he’ll have a new shopmate in the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne for 2012 – there’s no idea as to how much of a distraction that’ll be or how different their driving styles are. Hendrick Motorsports remains a crowded organization of elites, along with the two Stewart-Haas cars of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman that are de facto entries. Danica Patrick is entering SHR, switching the focus and financing as Hendrick’s “chassis and engine business” expands. Turning 41, Gordon will be another year older and that much closer to the retirement rocking chair he always said would beckon earlier than most. And Gustafson? He’s only made back-to-back Chases once, with Kyle Busch in 2006-07 and has shown mediocrity is possible (see: Martin in ’10) despite good chemistry.
It’s notable all four of Gordon’s titles were won during the non-Chase era; for whatever reason, despite two “fake titles” if the old point system were used he just hasn’t been able to get consistency down the stretch. Runs of 24th, fourth and 12th entering this weekend is all he had to show for 2011; that makes a used-up mulligan impossible to overcome.
So have we seen the last of Gordon winning titles? Certainly, as long as Johnson drives that No. 48 there’s an in-house rival proven to trump Gordon time and time again. Plus, in the three seasons prior to this one this veteran was only able to scrape up one career victory; it’s hard to call a legend’s year an anomaly, but at least in the win column this season certainly seems like it. Add in the upcoming driver switch, plus the difference in quality of performance between shops Gordon appears lost in the Hendrick shuffle at the moment; you didn’t see anyone else at Hendrick blow their engine Sunday did you?
As you’d expect from a former champ, Gordon handled this ending with dignity and grace. But you have to wonder if, deep down he recognized the magnitude of missing that opportunity when the Chase was his for the taking. Right now, the original four-time looks increasingly likely he’ll stay that way — all the way to that Hall of Fame plaque once he retires.